Part 14: The idol factory (1.11)
How do we know God? We know God’s glory through His creation, and even more specifically through His special revelation in the Word of God. Trying to take the biblical God and reduce Him into an image or statue is idolatry that distorts the true God.
In chapter 11, Calvin reminds us that all images of God teach us false things about God. We must watch carefully that a supposed image of God – or any image for that matter – does not replace the doctrines of the Cross of Christ. But Calvin will broaden his definition of idolatry to include statues of biblical characters and saints and even to the myriad of crosses and the crucifix so common in his time.
Here are some themes that emerge from this lengthy chapter:
1. All images teach. Calvin builds off Habakkuk 2:18 where we’re told images of God are “a teacher of lies.” Calvin writes, “whatever men learn of God from images is futile, indeed false” (105). Later, “all who seek the knowledge of God from these are miserably deluded” and “whatever knowledge of God is sought from images is fallacious and counterfeit” (105). Like any piece of artwork, an idol speaks a message to its audience. Trying to communicate God through fashioned images will only speak lies. God cannot be communicated through visible images.
It appears from this chapter that Rome believed images to be the books of the ignorant. Calvin agrees that images speak. But Calvin also knows that images of God only speak from our human conceptions about Him. Reliable truth about God does not come from our minds and into shaped wood, it comes only through Scripture.
2. All images falsely represent God. Calvin builds from the account of Moses reminding the people of Israel about their meeting God at Mt. Sinai. The passage is worth looking at here:
“Then the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice. And he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments, and he wrote them on two tablets of stone. And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and rules, that you might do them in the land that you are going over to possess. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth.” (Deu. 4:12-17)
Moses knows the tendency of the human heart. Some Israelite would begin pondering how to encapsulate the Sinai experience in a statue of a man or bird or fish. But God did not present Himself in any visible form for the exact reason that no images be made of Himself! Moses reminds Israel (and by application he reminds us all) to “watch yourselves very carefully” because we are prone towards images as reminders of His glory.
God is invisible; therefore all representations of Him are false. Calvin reminds us that “God himself is the sole and proper witness of himself … God’s glory is corrupted by an impious falsehood whenever any form is attached to him,” and, “all who seek visible forms of God depart from him” because “God’s majesty is sullied by an unfitting and absurd fiction, when the incorporeal is made to resemble corporeal matter, the invisible a visible likeness, the spirit and inanimate object, the immeasurable a puny bit of wood, stone, or gold” (100-101). Calvin returns frequently to Isaiah for this concept (Isa. 40:18-20; 41:7, 29; 45:9; 46:5-7).
As we will shortly see, contemporary Roman Catholicism defends the veneration of images precisely because they supposedly turn adoration towards God. This is wrong for the same reason praying to a gold replica of a burning bush in your living room dishonors God. A true knowledge of him – the theme of book one in the Institutes – is to come to Him through Scripture.
3. Images originate in the human mind. Our human minds are “a perpetual factory of idols” (108). As soon as sin entered the world, idolatry entered, too. Just shortly after the flood we know that even Abraham’s father Terah was an idolater (Jos. 24:2). Idolatry is pervasive because our minds imagine false things about God. In fact, “all we conceive concerning God in our own minds is an insipid fiction” (103). Once the image is conceived in the mind it’s birthed in wood. Calvin writes, “man tries to express in his work the sort of God he has inwardly conceived. Therefore the mind begets an idol; the hand give it birth” (108).
For Calvin, the mind conjures an idolatrous understanding of God, then fashioned into wood, then adored and becomes an empty superstition. The danger of idolatry is not in carved images, but in the twisted minds that conceive of the images.
4. Idolatry springs from sincerity. Don’t think that people fashion idols because they think the idol alone is what is represented. Idolatry springs from a genuine desire to represent true divinity in the form of an image. This is true of the pagans: “we must not think the heathen so stupid that they did not understand God to be something other than stocks and stones” (109). Likewise, this is true of the Old Testament Jews: “In these images, nevertheless, the Jews were convinced that they were worshipping the eternal God, the one true Lord of heaven and earth” (110). This sincerity makes the adoration of images and pictures a significant danger in the church.
The 1992 Roman Catholic Catechism states, “Religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate. The movement toward the image does not terminate in it as image, but tends toward that whose image it is” (2132). But this supposed sincerity is exactly the danger Calvin confronts. Idolatry appears to sincerely point others towards God, but in reality the images point others only towards twisted human conceptions of Him.
5. Embrace art. Calvin is not saying art and adornment are useless. He loves art. But he warns us that “only those things are to be sculpted or painted which the eyes are capable of seeing” (112). He seems to even agree that painting historical events are useful in teaching. Does he here mean biblical events I cannot tell. He is certainly against racy statues supposedly drawn from biblical accounts and against the veneration and adoration given to any representation. There is a place for artistic expression in teaching.
6. Strong doctrine guards against idolatry. For the first four centuries of the church as “religion was still flourishing, and a purer doctrine thriving, Christian churches were commonly empty of images” (112; cf. Turretin, Elenctic, 2:57-60). As soon as images were installed in churches they led to idolatry, “For men’s folly cannot restrain itself from falling headlong into superstitious rites” (113). The doctrine of the Cross is our instruction. Sinners are driven towards images and idols only when the doctrines of the Gospel are not made clear. “But whence, I pray you, this stupidity if not because they are defrauded of that doctrine which alone was fit to instruct them?” (107). Indeed it is a good reminder that when crowds gather around icons and symbols that they arrive only because the true gospel has been withheld. Calvin says it so well,
“What purpose did it serve for so many crosses – of wood, stone, silver, and gold – to be erected here and there in churches, if this fact had been duly and faithfully taught: that Christ died on the cross to bear our curse, to expiate our sins by the sacrifice of his body, to wash them by his blood, in short, to reconcile us to God the Father? From this one fact they could have learned more than from a thousand crosses of wood or stone” (107).
Remember Calvin in this part of the Institutes is telling us how we can know God. Time and time again Calvin points us back to Scripture as the only sure guide to know Him. When the message of the Cross is gone, the vacuum it creates fills in with images and superstitions. Resorting to visual images in worship is a sure sign that the message of the Cross is no longer central. This is the big danger.
In all of this, it’s clear that Calvin sees venerated religious images as the fruit of idolatrous minds and the adoration and veneration of the icons, statues, and special crosses as nothing other than “fornications with wood and stone” (111). Beware of the “image fighters” who think Christian devotion rests upon paintings, crucifixes, statues and special crosses (116). Seek the display of God’s glory in his Word alone. Life comes by the faith in the Cross not the sight of crosses.
Calvinistic meditations …
1. The most ignorant are the most susceptible. If images are the books of the ignorant, we are especially susceptible to errors when it comes to our ministries towards the ignorant. I see a special danger in children’s ministries when we try and communicate everything through images. We can teach through images – it seems Calvin defends this practice – however we must beware of venerating images and using them to replace the teachings of Scripture. “Therefore watch yourselves very carefully.”
2. Icons are most necessary when the preaching of the gospel has been made unnecessary. Calvin is so clear here. Are our churches adorned in images and pictures representing our conceptions of God or adorned with the preaching of the Cross of Jesus Christ? A sure sign of idolatry is the use of superstitious rituals. As Calvin reminds us from church history, we will not bow and adore images if the preaching of the gospel is strong. When preachers move away from the content of Scripture in sermons they move towards their own mentally carved image of God. Idolatry precedes the injection mold. “Therefore watch yourselves very carefully.”
3. Idol worship seems sincere. We frequently scoff at pagan nations that worship a big statue of a bald and fat guy sitting cross-legged. But we forget that all idols are intended to point others beyond wood, stone and gold. Sincerity does not eliminate the danger of idolatry. Theologian Charles Hodge once wrote, “idolatry consists not only in the worship of false gods, but also in the worship of the true God by images.” Even if we seek to worship the true Living God through images, we will quickly begin worshiping the image itself. “Therefore watch yourselves very carefully.”
4. Our sinful mind is the idol factory! We frequently think of idolatry in terms of wood, stone, metal or plastic. But true idolatry is first conceived in our mind and then birthed in our hands. Sinners must first imagine a “jesus” who doesn’t really care about sin and who does not judge sinners before we forge a hippie-looking plastic “jesus.” The problem is not in the plastic injection mold; the problem is in the wrong theology that informs such an image. A plastic “jesus” removes all fear of Jesus’ majesty and holiness. Such an error is birthed in the mind from false theology. In reality we don’t need wood, stone, and statues to express our idolatrous minds. Idolatry is fully expressed by false images of God conceived in our thoughts and sermons. “Therefore watch yourselves very carefully.” [See chapter four in Knowing God by J.I. Packer.]
5. God saves sinners out of idolatry. Amazingly, God saves religious men. He saved me after 22 years of ‘faithful’ religion. He saved Saul the religious zealot. He saved Abraham out of a family of idol worshippers. Paul wrote, “For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thes. 1:9). Idolatry — that is, to have misunderstandings about God — is very religious. Even today, God’s sovereign power must break into the lives of idol worshippers. He comes, not as a relic to be kissed, but as the Living God who comes in power to confirm the authenticity of Scripture as the only true testimony of Himself.
That’s what is so amazing: It really takes the power of sovereign grace to break into the dead heart of religious, idol-worshipping sinners.
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